Sunday, August 26, 2012

The Delphic Oracle

I'm enjoying Anthony Everitt's The Rise of Rome, and he notes that around 500 B.C. the Roman King Tarquin sent his sons to consult the oracle at Delphi for some insight. At the Temple of Apollo there were written three maxims:

  • Know yourself 
  • Nothing in excess 
  • Offer a guarantee and disaster threatens 

 Now, the first is rather profound, because it highlights that it's very important to tailor one's actions around one's comparative advantages. The second is the famous 'golden mean' of moderation in all things, found in Socrates. But the last is rather odd. I suspect, some type of guarantee was made to a group that became unaffordable, and created a minor revolt. It sure doesn't fit with the other two.


Anonymous said...

Maybe they were just predicting the subprime crisis - depending on those structured AAA guarantees didn't lead to the best results.

More seriously, if everyone expect something "human related" to work out 100% of the time then people won't make adequate preparations for when it doesn't work.

Unknown said...

Mmm..I think it's reasonably in keeping with them, isn't it? I read it as a counsel against certainty and the over confidence it can induce. It's really just saying that the world is an uncertain and unpredictable place. It might equally say 'margin of safety'..

E Hines said...

Know yourself--including your capabilities and weaknesses. From that flows an injunction not to guarantee beyond those capabilities. Since those capabilities are themselves flawed, guarantees based on them can only be flawed.

Even those guarantees we might make based on universal observations of the outside world are flawed because the observations themselves are flawed--vis., the Ptolemaic astronomic system.

Eric Hines

Mercury said...

Getting oneself into a heap of trouble after having guaranteed an outcome/price/condition, written insurance or…a naked put, created an obligation/burden by establishing an “eternal” something or other etc. etc. is probably as ancient, pervasive and recurring a pitfall of human agency as human nature itself. So maybe it’s not all that incongruent when viewed in this context. At least one Delphic oracle admonished supplicants to “consider the consequences”. And of course, many of us would be thankful if such advice were better heeded today.
Further reading along these lines:

Anonymous said...

The third maxim is "Go surety, and ruin is at hand."


Eric Falkenstein said...

OK, "Go surety, and ruin is at hand' seems much more profound. Be skeptical, tentative, aware of fallibility. Translation can make things sound very different.

Anonymous said...

The third maxim seems a special case of the second.